As the City Burned

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The following story is true, however the names and details have been fictionalized.

City BurningThe pounding in Shlomo’s head wouldn’t stop, but it was easily drowned out by the pain in his heart. The city lay in flaming ruins; human corpses were lying all around him, rotting in the searing midday sun. He hadn’t eaten anything in four days, yet he knew he must go on. He must continue to fight. The Babylonians were carousing wildly in the Temple courtyard after having spent weeks fighting their way through the streets of Jerusalem. He couldn’t understand how they would dare to blaspheme G-d, especially after they had seen his power firsthand.

They came to attack Jerusalem over three and a half years ago. They brought with them the best soldiers, and the best military engineers. They had even brought three hundred donkeys loaded with the strongest axes known to man. Those hardened axes could cut through steel easily, yet the first time they struck the gate of Jerusalem, they broke instantly. For over three years the Babylonians had laid siege on the city with no success. Finally, in desperation, they started packing to leave, when they suddenly realized that the walls were sinking on their own accord, two and a half handbreadths daily. It was as if God was telling them, “Don’t think you can conquer Me, but I will let you in.”

Finally a heavenly voice declared “Now is the time to conquer Jerusalem. The time has come for it to be destroyed. The Temple is to be shattered and the Sanctuary burned.” The Babylonian general had one of the last axes near him. He grabbed it, and on the first blow, the entire gate crumbled. The attackers spilled into the city and immediately started the wholesale slaughter of its starving inhabitants. The hand to hand combat had been fierce. Shlomo, along with many of his friends, had fought valiantly, but they were no match for the better equipped, well trained Babylonian crack troops.

Finally, on the seventh of Av, the Babylonian barbarians entered the Temple, and began celebrating in full pagan fashion. Now, two days later, Shlomo could see them preparing a big fire to burn the building down. Shlomo paused for an introspective moment.

How did he end up here? He was a pirchei kehuna, a young apprentice Kohen, from a small village in the Galilee. He had been training to serve in the temple as his family had done faithfully for centuries. How did this spear end up in his hands when he should have been handling peace offerings on the Altar? Why was there human blood all over his ketonet tunic, the linen vestments of a priest, when his entire job was meant to bring unity and Godliness to the world? Should he attempt a kamikaze attack against the Babylonian captain standing a few feet from his hiding place, drunkenly drinking wine out of a golden temple vessel? Should he just try to escape the city, and join the exiles being slave-driven to a foreign country?

Suddenly, Shlomo felt a tapping at his shoulder. It was Yitzchak, the mentor of the apprentice priests, crouching next to him. “Shlomo,” he whispered, “come with me. We have an important mission to fulfill.” He quickly followed Yitzchak to a staircase leading to the roof of the Temple. Upon reaching the top, he was surprised to see many of his fellow apprentices huddled around a box. Against the cackling sound of the fires beginning to lick the temple walls, Yitzchak addressed his disciples for the last time. He spoke softly, with great love and sadness in his eyes, and soon there was not a dry eye in the group.

Finally, he reached into the ornate box, and produced a ring of keys they all recognized as the ones to the gates of the Temple. With his students huddled around him, he looked to heaven and spoke in a clear and pained voice.

“Lord of the Universe, we no longer have the merit to be trustees of Your Temple. Take the Temple keys!” Without another word, he threw the keys heavenward. The form of a hand came down from heaven, caught the keys, and disappeared. Then, with “Shema Yisrael” on their lips, the courageous apprentices leapt into to the raging fire.

This week is Tisha B’av, the Jewish Day of Mourning, when we mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, along with the host of other tragedies that befell the Jewish people in the last three millennia. How do we deal with the incredible weight of such a day? Is it not simply too much to bear, is it not paralyzing? What can we possibly feel or do to make the day meaningful, to make it constructive?

When the commandment to build a Sanctuary for G-d was first issued, we were told, “Build for me a Sanctuary, so that I may dwell inside of them” (Exodus 25:8). The Sages point out that it did not say “so that I may dwell in it,” rather it said “so that I may dwell in them.” This teaches us that each one of us has the ability to build a sanctuary inside of us, a place within us that God can call home.

We can’t rebuild the temple yet. We can’t construct that magnificent edifice of Godliness on earth yet. But what we can do is build it inside of us. We can make our lives more spiritually enriched to the point that we are someone in whom which God wants to reside. If enough of us build these internal spaces, surely God will rebuild His external space, the third and final Beit Hamikdash! L’shana ha’baa b’Yerushalayim hab’nuya! May next year find us in the rebuilt Jerusalem!

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.